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Journal article doesn’t represent an accurate picture of NRC hearing

The May 23 Journal article presented a misleading picture of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Albuquerque meeting to discuss the proposed interim storage facility in southern New Mexico for our country’s spent nuclear fuel.

Sadly, the article devoted as much space to Holtec’s claims, which were shared with Journal editors in a private meeting, as it did to the content of the public meeting, much of which refuted these claims but was excluded from the Journal article. Before Holtec International can be awarded a contract for the storage facility, the USNRC must conduct an environmental impact study which concludes that the proposed project would not threaten the environment or endanger local communities. The May 22 meeting was part of that data collection effort.

To say, as the article does, that “the majority spoke out against the project” implies that a substantial number of participants spoke in support of it; in reality, very few speakers offered favorable comments – and many of those who did were connected to the proposed project in some way. To its credit the article accurately lists several key objections, but its selection of quotes – one that makes little sense without its context and one that has more to do with WIPP than with the Holtec project – fails to do justice to the scope, quality and technical specificity of the presenters’ comments.

In reality the almost-four-hour meeting was filled with insightful, carefully documented challenges to Holtec International’s claims about the utility, safety and viability of the project. Presenters questioned the geologic suitability of the proposed site, the integrity of the storage casks, and the safety of the transportation infrastructure. Others challenged the wisdom of aggregating so much spent nuclear material at a single site, which could make it a target for terrorism.

Several presenters, including myself, noted that Holtec prevaricated on its website when it reported that attendees of the Carlsbad, Hobbs and Roswell meetings expressed “unequivocal support” for the project, when in reality they were as, or more, likely to oppose the project as to support it. Attendees at these earlier meetings reported considerable opposition to the project from both the oil and gas industry and the dairy industry, as well as from members of the public at large.

Understating the degree of opposition is a common strategy for drumming up public support, but it does little to engender trust. As one California-based attendee with experience of Holtec’s storage facility at the San Onofre nuclear power plant told the audience, the company has not always been sufficiently transparent in its dealings with the local community.

Early on in the meeting, state Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, expressed his concern that this project is being rushed through with little or no input from the state Legislature and other relevant stakeholders. The need for more time was reiterated throughout the meeting. A project of this magnitude, with so many unknowns and so much at stake, requires an extensive and multi-pronged assessment of a host of environmental impacts. Various presenters opined that the two-month extension of the comment period – from May 29 to July 30 – while a step in the right direction, is insufficient to collect the necessary data to evaluate the project comprehensively and to solicit input from all those who might be affected by it.

Hopefully, the NRC will either be able to conduct a thorough environmental impact assessment in the two months remaining, or it will revise its timeline as necessary to accomplish this objective. I urge your readership to learn as much as possible about the proposed storage facility – ideally with the help of the Journal’s insightful and balanced reporting – and to register their comments with the NRC. With no permanent storage facility in sight, the Holtec project, if it comes to pass, could impact New Mexicans for many generations to come.